How to Deal with Frustration in the Art Therapy Process

Written by Samantha Davis

Creative time should be fun and easy, right? But what happens when it doesn’t turn out nicely?

When busy with a creative project, have you ever felt stuck or blocked, as if you’ve hit a brick wall, and can’t continue? Have you found yourself saying “I can’t do this” or “I am outta here”? Have you noticed self-criticism coming up, or feelings of anger, frustration, distress or exhaustion? Headaches (or other physical pain) as a result? Well, Helen did too…

In her recent individual Art Therapy session, Helen mentioned that she felt like painting some light, pretty, spontaneous flowers.  She chose watercolours – a relatively new medium that she was unfamiliar with. However, the watery medium seemed to spread the markings on the page and Helen struggled to form the light, thin, detailed shapes the way she anticipated. As she painted, she commented that “blobs of thick watery shapes plopped onto the page.” And that “they looked heavy and ungainly.” She tried to re-define the petals using a thinner brush and darker colours.

‘Dark smudgy blobs’ still stared back at her. “What to do with this?” she asked in a somewhat frazzled state… Should she just start afresh on a new sheet of paper? Should she try paint over the blobs? “But how can you paint flowers over a big black blob while the paint is still wet?” she questioned. Helen then stood up, leaving the wet blobs on the page and announced “I need some hot tea and chocolate!”

When doing art or creating images in an Art Therapy process – the image often doesn’t turn out how we want it to. This is symbolic of experiences in life, as we often have ideas or expectations of how things should be... In life there are always things that don’t turn out the way we want them to. We like to feel in control of situations and outcomes. When it doesn’t turn out the way we needed it to, it can feel challenging and lead to feelings of irritation, frustration, disillusionment, resistance, despair and even anger.

What can we do in such situations?

We can opt to retreat the situation, say for example, for a quick fix of endorphins – the feel-good hormone released when eating chocolate!

But often, that underlying feeling remains…

Note: What is NOT helpful is to delve into a story. Blame. Shame. Regret. His/her fault. Paint’s fault. Etc. You know what I mean…

What IS useful is to simply notice the feeling as it arises. Ask yourself: “What am I feeling and what do I need?” When we notice the feeling, we acknowledge the feeling. Acknowledging the feeling allows us to name the feeling. This builds awareness and consciousness.

Asking yourself what you need is showing yourself that you do have choice in how you respond to each situation. Having choice builds resilience. Having choice is a path to self-development and personal empowerment.

Let’s explore this further in terms of a creative Art process

When doubts or challenges arise in creativity – ask yourself – what are you feeling and what does the image (situation) need? What can you do with the image the way it has turned out? Does it perhaps need something to be added/changed/painted over? Does it need colour, wording, light, larger paper, repositioning? Cutting or tearing around the paper into a new shape? Changing of perspective/angle of the image or paper? Or simply... Acceptance?

Let’s return to Helen…

After her cup of tea, Helen went back to her image. After all, she was stuck with me for an hour’s session!

On a practical level the paint was dry, so it felt possible for Helen to continue to work over her image. She decided to explore a new medium – coloured ink, as it is both a stronger medium and can be applied over dry watercolours. She played with the shape of the ‘blob’ and it suddenly emerged into a ‘foot’. She commented that it felt quite affirming and grounding. With the ink, she found it possible to turn the ‘dark smudgy blobs’ into flowers, after which she noticed “even balloons” evolved. She continued to play with the shapes which emerged and also explored them as different textures, rather than needing them to be recognisable objects.

So how did that shift?

Let’s unpack some of Helen’s process – to try make sense of and find meaning in it, so that we can all learn from her experience…

Through a non-judgmental and curious exploration of what she experienced, Helen was able to identify and name the feeling of frustration that she had felt. This feeling resulted in her feeling stuck with the watercolour image. When Helen was able to name and acknowledge her frustration, she realised that the frustration belonged to a judgment of how the image should have turned out. She was then able to recognise and connect this to her old pattern of self-criticism arising when things didn’t turn out as she hoped or expected in the outside world. This was connected to an attachment or expectation of a specific outcome. This in itself can hinder one’s potential to play and be spontaneous in the moment. She could also acknowledge that she then had a choice as to how to respond.

Helen was then able to let that go and return to the present moment – of what the picture actually was: a means of expression or communication of a feeling or pattern of experience in her life. A feeling or pattern that needed to emerge and be explored in order to be able to move beyond it. And so, the image evolved to completion and to Helen’s satisfaction.

The above vignette of a case study of Helen illustrates how we often expect creativity to only be about making pretty pictures. But in creativity, as in life – things don’t not always go according to our expectations. An attachment to a specific outcome can lead to suffering – that is, a struggle and a stuckness. Self-criticism can also lead to suffering. We all have unconscious patterns of doubt, fear and judgment. These patterns are however not necessary anymore and it's useful when it is brought to consciousness in an Art Therapy process. Working with a qualified and registered Art Therapist allows one to undergo such a process of self-expression, communication and personal discovery, where the client is contained within a safe therapeutic environment.

The art materials can then symbolically represent one’s inner resources to make choices. Choices which can develop resilience in the person as a whole, of which to apply outside in life. It is our choice of how we respond in each moment that leads to the building of inner resources, reparation, perseverance, healing, growth, personal empowerment and joy. Learning how to endure disappointment and frustration is a part of building the resilience of a creative and productive person.

I quote Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic: “Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration IS the process.”

*Helen is a pseudonym.

Curious about Art Therapy?

Please note that one can only legitimately use ‘Art Therapy’ with clients once you have undergone a registered Art Therapy training (which is only available internationally) and are then registered with the HPCSA. For more info on an international Masters in Art Therapy, go here.

Art Therapy Courses / Workshops in South Africa

Art Therapy 1-Day Intro Course (Cape Town)

14 May 2019 | Registration is closed

This one-day course is aimed at introducing you to the dynamic and exciting process of Art Therapy and how it can be applied to adults and children of all ages. An exciting combination of learning, experiential art-making and questions and answers in a group environment. No art experience required!

Full Fee: R1450

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Cape Town)

17-19 Jun 2019 | Registration is closed

An introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

Full Fee: R5550

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Johannesburg)

TBC | Registration is closed

An introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

Full Fee: R5750

Learn More

Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive Course (Cape Town)

6-12 November 2019 | 3 SPACES LEFT!

5 consecutive weekdays excluding the weekend

A dynamic combination of psychodynamic and Art Therapy theory, case studies, experiential art making, journaling and reflection within a psychodynamic group environment. Beneficial for both personal and professional growth. Includes comprehensive course manual and journal.

Full Fee: R7995

Learn More

Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive Course (Johannesburg)

28 August - 3 September 2019 | Registration is closed

5 consecutive weekdays excluding the weekend

A dynamic combination of psychodynamic and Art Therapy theory, case studies, experiential art making, journaling and reflection within a psychodynamic group environment. Beneficial for both personal and professional growth. Includes comprehensive course manual and journal.

Full Fee: R8795

Learn More

Advanced Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Cape Town)

23-25 July or 30 July - 1 Aug 2019 | Registration is closed

*NEW* Advanced Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar – after completion of the Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar or the Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive course – this ADVANCED or TOP-UP Seminar is built on previously explored concepts and group experiences.

Full Fee: R5200

Learn More

Mandala Workshop (Cape Town)

Friday 9 August 2019 (National Women's Day) | Registration is closed

A Mandala is a Sanskrit word for a ‘sacred’ or ‘magic circle’. Mandalas have been used for centuries in meditative and creative practices. This half day workshop is designed to help you relax and unwind and get into a space of being in the present moment through art, visualization, letting go in order to access a spontaneous, innate creative place within yourself. A real treat!

Full Fee: R850

Learn More

Art as Communication (Cape Town)

August/Sept 2019 | Registration is closed

(This course runs for 8 consecutive weeks on a Monday evening.)

A hands-on experiential art making workshop and exploring of images within a group format, whilst introducing basic Art Therapy theoretical ''concepts''. Various art materials are used as a means of self-expression and communication.

Full Fee: R4950

Learn More

Art Therapy Vision Board Workshop (Cape Town)

Fri 25 Jan / Sun 27 Jan / Mon 28 Jan 2019 | Registration is closed

A combination of colour, pictures, words and Art Therapy techniques to identify, explore and creatively set goals for 2018. Lay the foundations for the New Year! No art experience required.

Full Fee: R695

Learn More

Art Therapy and Mindfulness Workshop (Cape Town)

Wed 10 April 2019 | Registration is closed

Join the 1-Day Art Therapy & Mindfulness Workshop to explore and experience the art of being present! Tap into your innate creativity, with a focus on being in the moment, accessing joy, insight, wellness, gratitude, playfulness and having fun through art. No art experience required.

Full Fee: R1495

Learn More
Art Therapy Creative Year-End Workshops

Creative Year-End Functions (CT)

November / December 2019

Wondering what to do for your end-of-year function in Cape Town? Try something different - choose creativity and finish 2018 with an Art Therapy Creative Year-End Workshop. Funky, unique, innovative, relaxing and fun - no art skill required. Book yours today!

Learn More
Art Therapy for Corporates

Creative Workshops for Corporates

Upon request

Tailor-made for organisations and corporate settings! Various creative interventions available, which encompass a uniquely developed and researched methodology utilizing practical, creative and experiential learning rather than the traditional 'learning from lecture and notes' approach.

Learn More
Art Therapy in Education

Art Therapy Workshops for Educators

Upon request

Tailor-made Art Therapy workshops for groups of educators, art teachers and councillors working in school settings. Choose from a 2 hour mini-workshop or a 1-Day Art Therapy workshop...

Learn More

Art Therapy Courses / Workshops in South Africa

Art Therapy 1-Day Intro Course (Cape Town)

14 May 2019 | Registration is closed

This one-day course is aimed at introducing you to the dynamic and exciting process of Art Therapy and how it can be applied to adults and children of all ages. An exciting combination of learning, experiential art-making and questions and answers in a group environment. No art experience required!

Full Fee: R1450

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Cape Town)

17-19 Jun 2019 | Registration is closed

An introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

Full Fee: R5550

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Johannesburg)

TBC | Registration is closed

An introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

Full Fee: R5750

Learn More

Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive Course (Cape Town)

6-12 November 2019 | 3 SPACES LEFT!

5 consecutive weekdays excluding the weekend

A dynamic combination of psychodynamic and Art Therapy theory, case studies, experiential art making, journaling and reflection within a psychodynamic group environment. Beneficial for both personal and professional growth. Includes comprehensive course manual and journal.

Full Fee: R7995

Learn More

Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive Course (Johannesburg)

28 August - 3 September 2019 | Registration is closed

5 consecutive weekdays excluding the weekend

A dynamic combination of psychodynamic and Art Therapy theory, case studies, experiential art making, journaling and reflection within a psychodynamic group environment. Beneficial for both personal and professional growth. Includes comprehensive course manual and journal.

Full Fee: R8795

Learn More

Advanced Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Cape Town)

23-25 July or 30 July - 1 Aug 2019 | Registration is closed

*NEW* Advanced Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar – after completion of the Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar or the Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive course – this ADVANCED or TOP-UP Seminar is built on previously explored concepts and group experiences.

Full Fee: R5200

Learn More

Mandala Workshop (Cape Town)

Friday 9 August 2019 (National Women's Day) | Registration is closed

A Mandala is a Sanskrit word for a ‘sacred’ or ‘magic circle’. Mandalas have been used for centuries in meditative and creative practices. This half day workshop is designed to help you relax and unwind and get into a space of being in the present moment through art, visualization, letting go in order to access a spontaneous, innate creative place within yourself. A real treat!

Full Fee: R850

Learn More

Art as Communication (Cape Town)

August/Sept 2019 | Registration is closed

(This course runs for 8 consecutive weeks on a Monday evening.)

A hands-on experiential art making workshop and exploring of images within a group format, whilst introducing basic Art Therapy theoretical ''concepts''. Various art materials are used as a means of self-expression and communication.

Full Fee: R4950

Learn More

Art Therapy Vision Board Workshop (Cape Town)

Fri 25 Jan / Sun 27 Jan / Mon 28 Jan 2019 | Registration is closed

A combination of colour, pictures, words and Art Therapy techniques to identify, explore and creatively set goals for 2018. Lay the foundations for the New Year! No art experience required.

Full Fee: R695

Learn More

Art Therapy and Mindfulness Workshop (Cape Town)

Wed 10 April 2019 | Registration is closed

Join the 1-Day Art Therapy & Mindfulness Workshop to explore and experience the art of being present! Tap into your innate creativity, with a focus on being in the moment, accessing joy, insight, wellness, gratitude, playfulness and having fun through art. No art experience required.

Full Fee: R1495

Learn More
Art Therapy Creative Year-End Workshops

Creative Year-End Functions (CT)

November / December 2019

Wondering what to do for your end-of-year function in Cape Town? Try something different - choose creativity and finish 2018 with an Art Therapy Creative Year-End Workshop. Funky, unique, innovative, relaxing and fun - no art skill required. Book yours today!

Learn More
Art Therapy for Corporates

Creative Workshops for Corporates

Upon request

Tailor-made for organisations and corporate settings! Various creative interventions available, which encompass a uniquely developed and researched methodology utilizing practical, creative and experiential learning rather than the traditional 'learning from lecture and notes' approach.

Learn More
Art Therapy in Education

Art Therapy Workshops for Educators

Upon request

Tailor-made Art Therapy workshops for groups of educators, art teachers and councillors working in school settings. Choose from a 2 hour mini-workshop or a 1-Day Art Therapy workshop...

Learn More